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The Vatican has a voice in the world of AI


Mike MacKenzie-(CC BY 2.0)

Hugues Lefèvre - published on 02/05/24

Pope Francis has just released two major texts on the development of artificial intelligence and its consequences, highlighting the risk of dehumanization.

The Pope couldn’t have found a better example to illustrate the risk that AI can represent. Over the past few days, a video has been circulating on social networks of Mexican Cardinal Aguiar extolling the virtues of a miracle solution to combat diabetes.

Standing in his office in his cardinal’s robes, the archbishop of Mexico promotes a drug that has supposedly enabled him to beat the disease. But in reality, it’s all a lie: The cardinal’s video is nothing more than a “deep fake,” a trick created using artificial intelligence. The company has simply hijacked the video of the Cardinal’s Christmas greetings.

Artificial intelligence and peace

The case is not trivial. And the Holy See is fully aware of it. In the space of three weeks, Pope Francis has published two major texts on the challenges artificial intelligence poses to humanity. One was published for this year’s World Day of Peace on January 1, in a message that traditionally expresses the deepest concerns of the world’s smallest state.

For the head of the Catholic Church, this dazzling technological development raises fears of a whole range of evils for humanity. Threats such as “disinformation campaigns,” “discrimination, interference in elections, the rise of a surveillance society, digital exclusion and the exacerbation of an individualism increasingly disconnected from society.” 

Going ever deeper into the concrete lives of millions of citizens, the Pope fears that AI could now determine “the reliability of an applicant for a mortgage, the suitability of an individual for a job, the possibility of recidivism on the part of a convicted person, or the right to receive political asylum or social assistance.”

The misuse of AI to attack and control

“It’s artificial intelligence for the purposes of war that scares us the most,” said Cardinal Czerny at the presentation of the Pope’s message in Rome.

Cardinal Czerny calls on the international community “to guarantee adequate, meaningful and coherent human supervision of autonomous lethal weapons systems,” which “can never be morally responsible subjects.” More broadly, he calls for the adoption of “a binding international treaty” to regulate the development and use of AI.

In the world of communications

The Pope’s second note on the issue came on January 24, the feast day of St. Francis de Sales — patron saint of journalists and communicators — which is consequently World Day of Communications.

In a lengthy reflection on artificial intelligence and its effects on communication and society, he points the finger at the “specter of a new form of slavery” and warns against “the possibility that a select few can condition the thought of others.”

“It is up to us to decide whether we will become fodder for algorithms or will nourish our hearts with that freedom without which we cannot grow in wisdom,” he concludes. 

The Pope is no “technophobe”

These strong warnings about AI’s possible threats to humanity do not, however, make the Church an institution that rejects technical progress. In fact, the Pope urges us not to “reject ‘the new,’” but rather to “guide this cultural transformation to serve a good purpose,” believing that our times are certainly “rich in technology” but “poor in humanity.”

Mathieu Guillermin is a French lecturer at the Catholic University of Lyon, who came to Rome to present the Pope’s message on peace. He also does not see any “technophobic rejection” in the Pope, who is able to rejoice in “extraordinary advances” that have alleviated “countless ills.”

Nor is the Vatican naïve about the future of Artificial Intelligence, which will inevitably continue to bring “profound changes in the lives of human beings,” wrote the signatories of the Rome Call for AI Ethics in 2020, a declaration drafted under the impetus of the Pontifical Academy for Life.

Archbishop Paglia in India to talk about AI

Signatories to the document, which advocates the development of more transparent, inclusive, socially beneficial and responsible technologies, included Microsoft, IBM and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). Some 200 universities, companies and industries in the sector also endorsed it.

Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, president of the academy, is actively promoting the principles of this declaration to guide “good innovation.” He arrived in India on Sunday, January 28, and for a week, held a series of meetings. He presents the Call from Rome and stimulating reflection in a country which has almost 700 million internet users out of a world population of over 1.4 billion internet users. 

At the Vatican, other institutions are taking part in this impetus for reflection on AI, including the Dicastery for Culture and Education and its department devoted to digital culture, the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development, and the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, whose efforts are spearheaded by the Dominican sister Helen Alford, a Cambridge-educated expert in business ethics.

Artificial IntelligenceChurchPope Francis
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